A women’s soccer team in Zanzibar. The first all female Palestinian race-car team. A world record holder swimming from Cuba to Florida in shark-infested waters. What do these firsts have in common? They’re all part of the world’s first ever Women’s Sports Film Festival.
The atmosphere was electric as audience members were transported around the globe through a collection of eighteen documentary films. As community partners of the festival, we were honored to catch up with Susan Sullivan, co-founder and festival director. With similar dreams of inspirational storytelling in the media, we had found our kindred spirit. ‘We wanted to see these films and had nowhere to see them,’ she says with an ever-present twinkle in her eye. ‘So we created the event ourselves’.
Film after film showed women of all ages smashing stereotypes, using strength, power and sheer determination to turn the impossible into reality. Here’s what we learned:

women sports film festival 1. In some countries, chasing your dream is seen as immoral

In Zanzibar, when girls reach a certain age, they are expected to stop playing football, step back and ‘watch the boys’. The New Generation Queens follows a group of young women in Zanzibar, East Africa as they ignore societal expectations and pursue their love. ‘The film was made for the girls of Zanzibar’, first-time director Megan Shutzer says of its audience. ‘The team wanted to show them that you can be Muslim, a woman and a soccer player, all at the same time’. In a society where the dominant religion is Islam, this is controversial. Locals openly voice their disapproval of female footballers throughout the film, calling the activity ‘immoral’. The film shows the players pushing through negative opinions, sexism in the sport and opposition from their families to qualify for the Copa Cola, a highly respected tournament in Tanzania.

2. ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ – Everyone needs a role model

Ayesha McGowan has serious plans to become the first female African-American professional road cyclist. Unbelievably in 2016, the title is still up for grabs. The BBC featured McGowan in a short film showing her hope for cycling to be seen as more than ‘white’ and ‘elitist’. Her motivation to begin the journey was simple, ‘I was looking for a role model, and I couldn’t find one. You always see success [in sports] but never how they get there. There’s so much stress and anxiety involved, watching someone overcome that is inspiring.’
85% of cyclists in the US are non-Hispanic and white – that’s a vast area of people being underrepresented. As a black female road cyclist, whenever I’m out on my bike and in my lycra, other cyclists stare as if seeing a unicorn. The community could use a little shake up and McGowan is set on making it happen.

women sports film festival 3. If your risks don’t scare you, they aren’t risky enough

Speed Sisters follows the first all female car racing team as they tear around Palestine. These women are bold, badass, but not without fear, which is important to note. At times, media portrays strong women as unfeeling or without emotion. In Speed Sisters, the racers come up against legitimate fears, like soldiers who do not hesitate to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. And highly pressured races where driving a route incorrectly, results in a complete race disqualification. Speed Sisters shows five women in all their glory, acknowledging their individualities, emotions, fears, and how they are overcome to achieve race wins and personal bests.

4. We still need the phrase ‘Women in Sports’

An Equal Playing Field explores the massive inequality in funding and coverage for men’s soccer in comparison to women’s. In a Q&A session after the film screening, an audience member questioned use of the phrase ‘Women in Sport’ – perhaps it created too much separation between the sexes and was passé. The audience was quick to respond.. Do networks pump the same amount of funding into women’s sports? Has the pay gap between female and male athletes been closed? Are young girls encouraged to be strong, fast and fearless in the same way as boys? Until male and female sports are truly on the same level, the phrase will certainly be used to elevate female athletes.

By the end of the three-day event, the audience had been taken through a collection of films, each as inspirationally thrilling as its predecessor. The festival trailer shown before each screening can only be described as raw, unabashed girl power. Its two minutes of spine-shivering shots of women in sport, set to Shel’s ‘Stronger than my Fears’ served as the theme of the festival, creating an instant atmosphere of empowerment.

‘Still I hear my own fears call
Who are you to stand so tall
Well I’m stronger, I’m stronger than my fears’

All images courtesy of Women’s Sports Film Festival